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US: UPDATED: 14 -- no, 5 -- years for California man, due in part to past criminal record (overturned June 2015)

Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, 26
Clovis, California, US

Sergio Patrick Rodriguez laser
In the summer of 2012, Rodriguez and his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, 23, were arrested for repeatedly aiming a green laser at a Fresno Police Department helicopter. It had been called out to investigate an earlier illumination of a children’s hospital medical helicopter. On December 20 2013, Rodriguez was found guilty of interfering with an aircraft (penalty up to 20 years in prison) and of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft (penalty up to 5 years in prison). Coleman was also found guilty of aiming a laser pointer. On March 10 2014, Rodriguez was sentenced to 14 years in prison. On May 12 2014, Coleman was sentenced to two years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release.

This is by far the longest sentence anywhere in the world for a laser/aircraft incident (see here for sentences of 37-48 months and here for sentences over 4 years). Rodriguez’s extensive past criminal record was a key factor helping to increase the length of the sentence; the judge called him a “walking crime spree.”

UPDATED June 24 2015: The 14-year sentence was overturned by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The judges did uphold Rodriguez’s conviction for aiming a laser pointer at a helicopter, saying this conviction “is designed for knuckleheads like him.” This conviction carried a 5-year sentence.

But they overturned Rodriguez’s conviction — and his subsequent 14-year sentence — for willfully attempting to interfere with the safe operation of an aircraft in reckless disregard for human safety. The court noted that the second conviction "is designed for both the Osama bin Ladens of the world - people trying to bring down a plane, intending to cause harm - and those who are aware that their actions are dangerous and could harm others, but just don't care…. The failure to recognize this distinction is to fail to appreciate that Congress saw fit to create two different crimes, one more serious than the other, for two different types of offenders.”

Judge Barry Silverman, writing for the panel, said that Rodriguez's intentionally shining the laser at the helicopter "is not, in and of itself, sufficient to allow a rational factfinder to conclude that Rodriguez acted with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life.” Silverman also wrote that “….the evidence showed that he was attempting to see how far his laser would go at night – a stupid thing to do, yes, but there is no evidence that he was trying to interfere with the pilot.”

UPDATED November 4 2016: Rodriguez appealed the June 2015 5-year sentence. On October 17 2016, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 5-year sentence. In an unpublished, unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel found the sentence was reasonable, even though advisory guidelines call for a sentence of only 21 to 27 months (1.75 to 2.25 years).

This was due to a number of factors: 1) “Rodriguez increased the dangerousness of the offense by striking the helicopter six or seven times,”, 2) minor children were involved, 3) he had a criminal history including gang involvement and 4) he was on probation when the laser illuminations occurred. From Ars Technica, Pasadena News Now and Courthouse News Service

US: UPDATED - 30 months in jail for lasing airplane, helicopter

Adam Gardenhire, 19
North Hollywood, California, US

Adam Gardenhire laser

On March 25 2013, Gardenhire was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for aiming a “commercial grade” green laser pointer at an aircraft and a police helicopter on March 29 2012. He could have received five years in prison. The crime has a maximum prison term of up to five years. Federal sentencing guidelines recommended an 18-24 month penalty, but U.S. DIstrict Judge Stephen Wilson said he wanted to send a message that Gardenhire’s behavior was “reckless and very dangerous.”

As of March 25 2013, Gardenhire remains free on bond pending an appeal hearing in April 2013.

UPDATED April 30 2015: A three-judge federal appeals court threw out Gardenhire’s 30-month sentence. They found that although Gardenhire was aware that laser misuse could cause blindness, that information was different from “knowing that a laser beam can be distracting to pilots who are both enclosed in a cockpit and at least 2,640 feet away. Nor did the government submit any evidence of what even an average person would know about the effects of aiming a laser beam at an aircraft.” The appeals court specifically noted that U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson said the behavior was “reckless” but that this view was “determined to be erroneous.” They asked for a new sentencing hearing, from a new judge in the federal district of Los Angeles. Details at this LaserPointerSafety.com news item.